February 15, 2005

Shadow Hearts: Covenant

by psu

Lately I have been trying to figure out why I keep playing Shadow Hearts. It is a "role playing" game in the Final Fantasy mode, which means it offers up a mostly linear series of small dungeon-like areas (even the towns are like dungeons) where you run around, pick up items you can't see (as in, they are not rendered on the screen, you only notice them because your clueless avatar gets a little "?" bubble when you pass one), meet monsters at random and generally just run from cut scene to cut scene while the various numerical attributes of your characters increase at random intervals. Overall the gameplay is repetitive and stultifying. The cut scenes are stiff and melodramatic with characters and voice acting that tends towards the humorous even if they don't mean to. You can't really say that the narrative, such as it is, is all that great.

But for some reason I keep going back to it. So I thought about it for a while. Here is what I like about the game.

Combat is Fun

The combat system is enjoyable for a number of reasons. First, it is entirely turn based, so you get plenty of time to fart around and think about how you want to kick the ass of your foe. Second, after you have decided what you want to do, the game presents you with a device that can make you feel like a bad ass: The Judgment Ring. The Judgment ring is timing gauge. You pick an action for a character and then you must time button presses as a sweeping hand goes around the judgment ring to determine how well your character does. Gladius has a similar attack gauge. In this respect, Shadow Hearts combat is basically like Gladius but without all the moving of characters around on a grid. Third, the combo system adds a certain amount of strategy and skill to the mix. Basically, you can chain actions from multiple characters into "combos" that do extra damage if you manage them successfully. Rewards for successful combos range from extra damage to bonus cash and experience at the end of the fight. The monsters are varied in design and are generally fun to look at. There are also a few that cross that line into the completely bizarre (the giant puff ball kitten comes to mind).

The main downside to the combat, aside from the repetitive animations and sounds, is the Sanity Point system. Basically, this is an artificial construct designed to make you need to stop fighting and babysit your avatars every few turns lest they go "Berserk" and lose control of their faculties and run over into a dark corner and wet themselves. I suppose this is supposed to add "depth" or something, but in practice it just makes boss fights longer and dumber. Luckily, it's only an issue in long fights.

In any case, combat is a big part of the game, and it is well done from my standpoint, which makes the game fun.

It's Not That Hard

In addition to fun combat, the game has a nice balance between the abilities of the characters and the difficulty of the foes that you face. Once you get the hang of the battle system, it's rare that you will lose fight after fight. This has the effect of allowing you to play through the game without a lot of repetition. This keeps the game moving forward at a good clip. Generally, the game is paced so that you can do one area every hour or two, which fits my game playing time slots well. This is in contrast to other games I've played recently.

Puzzles and other non combat aspects of the game are also not too hard, but interesting enough to not be completely tedious. OK. They are sort of tedious. But it goes by quickly. At least none of the puzzles are the Towers of Hanoi or depend on you being able to see the single tiny key in a large dungeon that lets you get past the door.

Fascinating Japanese Bizarre

Many aspects of the game are truly bizarre and surreal. You keep playing just to see the next thing. Along these lines the character models are generally comical. All the women, for some reason, have large chests and wear little in the way of covering. There is the huge wrestler dude who speaks like Dudley Do-Right and spends a third of his time in the form of a golden bat. There is the old guy with the magic puppet in the shape of a little girl. There is the S&M bitch boss monster. The list goes on and on.

Monster design has a similar sense of strange. For some reason, WWI Europe is populated by a bestiary from Hell itself. Exactly why this should be is never spelled out or justified. The world just exists this way. I think this is sort of cool.

There is a whole side plot involving one of the party members, which happens to be a white wolf. One mission in the game is a sneaky stealth level where you control the dog. How many games give you the chance to play a stealth mission as a dog? Metal Gear Snoopy.

Finally, of course, there is one side quest in the game that has been immortalized by Penny Arcade. It turns out that the magic dresses are useful, although the character they are attached to is somewhat weak. But, there are not that many of them and unlike the implication in the comic, collecting gay porn is not a huge part of the game.

Decent Navigation and Save Points

The savepoint system is tolerable. There are generally saves when you want them and you can always save from the world map mode. The game is good enough to give you saves before bosses and the save system doesn't randomly pick and choose information to throw on the floor without telling you. The game is pretty flexible about letting you back track to go and find things you might have missed. But this has limitations. In general, you can't go back and perform quest activities that you forgot about after passing any related milestone. It's a relief to save a game and not have to replay a whole level anyway.

Many Cool Items

Finally, the game appeals to any gamer's inherent obsessive compulsive collecting nature. The only time I have had any repetitive replays is when I either forgot to pick up a particular item or just didn't realize it was even there, and then ended up needing it later. I think you could drive yourself nuts playing every level twice to optimize the collecting side quests, but generally the game is balanced well enough that you can leave stuff behind and not cause any harm to yourself. I find myself reading the Internet guides to see what I missed, but I tend not to go back for things unless I really need to.

Happily, the game also does not require you to pick and choose what items to bring along or leave behind. The inventory system lets you carry as much as you want so there is no bin packing busywork. This makes me very happy.

Ultimately, I think Shadow Hearts succeeds by being well crafted rather than being spectacular in any particular way. You run, you fight, your numbers go up and then you watch some cut scenes. It's like a good summer movie with a lot of action and requiring not too much brain power. I think that having enjoyed this romp through Japanese RPG land, I'll have to go and pick up Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne now. I think I saw it on sale over at The Exchange.

Posted by psu at February 15, 2005 02:30 AM | Bookmark This


Avoid Nocturne. It's an exercise in almost canonically bad game design. In particular, there's a point in the game when you have to fight a Boss who is about 10 levels higher than the next 3 bosses you meet. I pumped up my party for about 5 hours and still got my hide handed to me. Not a tough fight, an unwinnable fight at that level. It turns out the boss the introduction to an optional quest, and there is no way to evade him.

Posted by Mike Collins at February 15, 2005 08:36 PM

SH 2 is far by better than FFX. Though I need help to get past Oscar...>_

Posted by Rai-chan at March 15, 2005 09:37 AM

Mike, I just beat that boss and agree with your assessment -- it just about made me decide to stop playing the game. Adding insult to injury, there's no save point right near the boss, so you are guaranteed at least one random combat and 5 minutes of pain every time you decide to see if R has increased enough for you to defeat him yet.

Posted by peterb at March 15, 2005 11:29 AM

I'm a huge Shadow Hearts Covenant fan. I agree that it isn't a particularly spectacular game if you really pick it apart, but for some reason it's very entertaining. The first Shadow Hearts is worth playing as well.
I didn't find Oscar particularly difficult, by the way. Godhand pissed me right off though.

Posted by Candice. at December 2, 2005 03:20 AM

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